I was late for my meeting with Ofer because I suddenly found myself at the remains of Jerusalem’s Moment Café, where a suicide bomber had attacked days before. Passers-by stopped to light memorial candles; dark-skinned workers cleared the rubble. Across the street, Peace Now held a vigil in front of the Prime Minister’s residence, keeping a tally of combined casualties–Israeli and Palestinian. A month later, as his troops were reportedly opening fire at close range against Palestinian civilians, Sharon would reveal his horror of such “mixing.” After the suicide bombing at an Arab-owned restaurant inside Israel, he spoke in the Knesset about the “victims of coexistence, those whose worlds fell apart while eating at an Arab restaurant in Haifa, their blood mixing with the blood of Israeli Arabs who were sitting beside them.” The Peace Now banner at Sharon’s residence read (in Hebrew): “Get Out of the Territories: Return to Ourselves.” My first reaction was to be cynical about the slogan’s over-simplicity. But speaking with Ofer was a reminder that “separation” can be on the racist, blood terms of a Sharon, or on the terms of those bordering each other in mutual recognition and dignity.
Ofer Beit Halachmi is one of the more than 1,000 Israeli “refuseniks”–reserve officers and soldiers who, since September, have refused to serve in the occupied territories. Over 400 of these belong to Seruv (“Refuse”), a group whose open letter declares that while they will “continue serving in the Israel Defense Forces [IDF] in any mission that serves Israel’s defense,” they will not “continue to fight beyond the 1967 borders in order to dominate, expel, starve, and humiliate an entire people.” In March, Ha’aretz columnist Israel Harel dismissed “the tiny refusal-to-serve movement, which the media inflates beyond any reasonable proportion to its true significance”–a sure sign of the group’s growing influence. Knesset member Yossi Sarid of the leftist Meretz party recently decided (according to Ha’aretz) that it would be political suicide to give official support to Seruv; nevertheless some Meretz members have publicly expressed their sympathy with the movement. Meanwhile, the IDF is taking a harder line: As of April 13, Seruv reports that 39 officers and soldiers were in Israeli prisons for their refusal, more than the number jailed at the height of the Lebanon war, when the refusal movement began with the group Yesh Gvul (“There is a Limit”).
Ofer is a rabbinical student at Jerusalem’s Hebrew Union College, where we meet. We speak in English. A third-generation Israeli, he was born two years before the 1967 war. His parents were Polish, anti-religious Zionists. They taught him about his “right to the land,” and about their wish for Jews to come to Israel. “This was the vision,” Ofer explains quietly. He grew up in Katzir, the town that would become newsworthy in 2000 when the Israeli Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling in favor of an Israeli Arab family challenging the quasi-governmental Jewish Agency’s policy restricting settlement of its properties to Jews. Growing up, Ofer would take walks which might lead him into territories occupied by Israel in 1967, but he never felt that there was a border. After all, it “was not mentioned,” he explains, “and was not visible.”
Then came the Lebanon war and what Ofer calls the “first crack.” He entered the army in 1984, going into Lebanon as part of the occupying Israeli army after the principal fighting was done. He was stationed near the Syrian border. Two things happened that winter, both of which have resonance almost 20 years later. First, he realized that nothing he was doing in Lebanon was related to defending Israel. “I was across the border without any real meaning,” he says. Then the first known suicide bomber struck– against a bus of Israeli soldiers. After that, “I found myself defending myself and not defending my country.” Such distinctions threatened to break open the “vision” his parents had instilled, in which individual, military, and state are all one. Israel itself was supposed to be a family. (Of course, as post-September 11th American boosterism makes clear, simplistic notions of family and nation are not unique to Israel.) Ofer recalls the old lessons: “Obey the country, obey the government, be a good soldier –because it’s the IDF, Israel Defense Forces. . . . We call it tz’vah ha’am, the military of the people.”
In 1984, Israel announced its withdrawal from Lebanon. “We decided, ‘we’”–here Ofer shrugs at his own usage, then revises it. “The government decided” to withdraw, but of course to remain in the so-called “security” zone created in southern Lebanon. The withdrawal was simply a lie, as Ofer sees it. Even as he recognized this, he entered his fourth year of army service to begin officer training. In 1985, he was sent to Ramallah and Nablus (he calls the latter by its Hebrew name, Shechem). Two years later, he went to Khan Yunis in the Gaza Strip.
“I found myself without any visible threat, walking through the streets,” he says. Under orders to “stop what I saw as innocent people,” he would interrupt their everyday lives to check their papers, and wonder why he was doing it. He remembers standing on a rooftop in Hebron with his weapon, watching people–Palestinian people–in the market. “I felt that I’m doing something wrong,” he tells me. “It put a split in my soul.”
Should he simply obey orders and assume that his superiors knew what they were doing, or should he act on his own sense that what he was doing was immoral? Ofer was describing an internal dialogue, so I asked if he ever spoke to friends or fellow soldiers about his dilemma. “There was an unwritten rule,” he responds. “If you are talking like that, you are joining the enemy . . . to put a knife in the back of your friends.” And the first intifada was still two years away.
Ofer tells me that the refuseniks have a variety of political views but that they share the “same split inside themselves”–as well as an understanding that the split is unnecessary. That is, his refusal to serve in the occupied territories is “not an act against my state and my people.” On the contrary: He is strengthening his right to shoot when necessary. “If I have borders, then I have the moral right to defend our borders.”
When we spoke, Seruv was only six weeks old, and the large-scale invasion of the West Bank was still two weeks away. Ofer wanted to emphasize to me that, unlike Yesh Gvul, the refusal movement which grew out of the Lebanon war, “we are not a political movement.” He has his own opinions of course, but Seruv does not have a position about Arafat or peace negotiations. He insists that everyone knows–including the right–that there is no future in the idea of using force to make the Arabs do what Israel might want them to do. At the same time, he says, the left has been saying to negotiate, but “we all know we have no one to talk with.” He suspects that after Arafat, the Palestinian leader who can gain popular support will be the one who promises the most violence against Israel–not because Palestinians want war but because that will be “the name of the game.” Beit Halachmi sees Seruv as a movement that comes out of a deep despair at the failure of all previous efforts toward peace. The refuseniks are staking out a position from which to look for answers, an engagement that becomes impossible once they “cross the border.”
“Israel must negotiate with itself,” he says, perhaps returning us by a more nuanced path to that Peace Now slogan. “When you don’t have a [geographical] border, you don’t have a moral border.” Then he adds that Israel took on the right to rule the territories, but instead of helping the people in them, has made their lives worse, making sure that the Palestinians cannot “build a living country.” This is no accident, he believes, explaining, “I was raised to be blind to human rights of non-Jews.” He acknowledges that this is a sharp comment, then checks with a friend for the meaning of the Hebrew word kitzoni. Yes, he confirms, it means a “sharp” comment, but true. (Later, I check my dictionary, which translates the word as “extreme.” People often confuse sharpness and clarity with extremism.)
“Actually,” he continues, “what I feel is, we created our enemies.”
Then our conversation ended abruptly because Ofer was late for class. I had planned to meet a contact from Ramallah in East Jerusalem, but he wasn’t able to leave his home. The night before, the Israel Defense Forces had re-occupied the town.
Mark Dow ([email protected]) is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer and poet. He is co-editor with David R. Dow of Machinery of Death: The Reality of America’s Death Penalty Regime (Routledge). More on the Courage to Refuse movement is available at http://www.seruv.org.il and http://www.shefafund.org.